The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Teachers are at a breaking point over covid. Ease up on them.

People rally in favor of and against a mask mandate at a school board meeting in Marietta, Ga., on Aug. 19. (Ben Gray/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Trent Bowers is the superintendent of the Worthington, Ohio, Public Schools. This column was adapted from a recent blog post.

One day this month I watched first graders race down a giant slide as we opened a new school playground. The pure joy on their faces was priceless.

It was a great moment in a difficult time. Because, if I’m being honest, for educators like me, going to school right now is just plain hard.

Every day, my team is deluged with emails, phone calls and messages from families angry about our covid-19 policies. Across the United States, and here in Worthington, Ohio, a Columbus suburb where I’m the schools superintendent, public schools are becoming battlegrounds over health and politics.

Clearly, this is a harrowing time for parents, and I understand that we’re all nervous. We want our students to be safe, to experience the special events we value and to have positive peer interactions. We want our children to be taught information that aligns with our family values. When any of those items is at risk, it creates fear, and often we express our fear as anger.

But educators nationwide are doing their best at a moment when consistent decision-making has been impossible because of ever-changing health guidance, recommendations and data. When Worthington’s new school year started Aug. 18, we had a mask mandate for K-8 students; five days later, because of concerns about the delta variant, the school board voted to extend the mandate to high schools.

Now, many parents here are angry about masks. Angry about students having to wear them. Angry when someone isn’t wearing them. Some families want more restrictions. Others think the school district is making decisions that should be better left to families.

The frustrating truth is that the policy one parent wants might be the exact opposite of what their next-door neighbor wants. We need more people to be cognizant of this, to be more patient, and if possible, to stop putting educators in the middle.

Schools’ stressors aren’t confined to masks and vaccine debates, though. Like many employers, they face enormous staffing challenges in the pandemic. Worthington is at the razor’s edge in terms of our bus driver staffing, which affects our ability to transport students to school and to events. The job’s difficulty and required qualifications make hiring drivers taxing every year. In the pandemic, it’s almost impossible.

There’s also a critical shortage of substitute teachers throughout central Ohio, and over the past year, we’ve seen more turnover of support staff in special education, kitchen staff, maintenance and other areas. For some people, the things they were asked to do last school year, and at the beginning of this year, don’t seem worth it.

Our employees need a break. If you treat bus drivers poorly, they have many, many other job options. Likewise, your principal may be at their breaking point. Our school nurses are on the front lines of people’s emotions. They’re working to keep students and families safe. Please work with them, not against them.

We have great educators in Worthington. But our teachers, like teachers everywhere, are juggling a lot, and getting beaten up all day, every day, by complaints about too many restrictions — or too few. All the conflict has some wondering how they’ll keep this up.

My plea is for all of us to simply recognize that this is a stressful time. School administrators, teachers and support staff take our responsibility to students and the community very seriously. We signed up to work with kids. To attempt to love them, teach them, shape them and help them grow. We can get through this together. But let’s do it holding hands, not pitchforks.